A friend, the wife of a seminary professor, pours her life into young women. She’s discovered, though, that they don’t just need to learn advanced theology. They need to learn basic life skills. They need two things from her: relationship and learning how to live.
We’re not so different. Most of us need someone who’s further on than we are. We need two things from them: relationship with them and learning how to live in the next lap of the journey.
The best mentors and disciple-makers offer relationship. “Come, let’s hang out together,” they say. “I want to get to know you.” In the process, they let us get to know them too.
My friend Bill was five or six years older than me. When I was a teenager, those five or six years made all the difference. Bill drove. Bill dated. Bill worked. Bill was everything that I wanted to be.
When Bill asked me if I’d be interested in hanging out with him, I was thrilled. Looking back, Bill was immature. How could a 23-year-old be anything but? But Bill was, literally and spiritually, years ahead of me. He showed me what it looked like to walk with God, albeit imperfectly, in the stage of life I would soon be facing.
Some models of discipleship focus on curriculum. A lot of the materials are good; I’ve written some myself. Bill took me through some of that material. But what we really need is someone who will walk beside us as we learn how to follow Jesus. We need more information, but information is best absorbed in the context of relationship.
We learn by seeing gospel truth lived out in flesh and blood, in the context of marriage, bills, jobs, and stress. “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith,” Hebrews tells us (Hebrews 13:7). We benefit from hearing God’s word from others. We also benefit from seeing how they live, how God’s truth shapes their lives.
Meals together, trips to the grocery store for milk, camping trips, long drives, coffees, and walks become fertile ground for helping others grow. One of the greatest gifts mentors can offer others is relationship.
Learning How to Live
“You hope to be a pastor one day, and you’re not regularly reading the Bible on your own?” my professor asked. I don’t think he meant to sound so harsh. I think he was just surprised. I was 19 years old and aspired to pastoral ministry, but I hadn’t yet developed some of the habits I’d need, like regular Scripture reading and a consistent prayer time. I knew I needed to do these things; I’d just never developed them as life skills.
Sometimes we assume that people will figure out how to grow once they’ve started to follow Jesus. But just as children need adults to raise them, younger Christians need the church to show them how to mature.
Most of us know what we should be doing. But not all of us have developed the skills to do them. Our problem isn’t a lack of knowledge. It’s translating what we know we should be doing into regular patterns in our lives.
I once taught at a conference on the importance of building skills like Bible reading, prayer, and church into our lives. After my teaching session, the host invited a panel to the stage. Each person on the panel was different. Some were young, some were old. Some had young children at home and heavy work responsibilities; some had retired and had more free time. Some were morning people; some loved evenings. The host asked each of them how they’d build patterns of Scripture reading, prayer, and church into their lives. No two answered exactly the same. Each one represented a different real-life example of how to build these necessary habits into their lives.
We don’t just need prescriptions. We also need real, relatable examples of people just like us. We need to see how people in a similar stage of life, with a similar personality, manage to build habits in their lives. We can learn content in a classroom, but we often learn skills and habits best by watching other people.
I remember watching people arrive for worship at our church plant one day. I realized that most of them had never been taught how to develop the daily skill of engaging with Scripture: how to build a habit, where to start, and how to deal with the inevitable challenges and setbacks. Most had never seen anyone develop a regular pattern of prayer in their lives.
I had to begin to think of ways to help them develop these skills. I couldn’t assume that they could figure them out by themselves. They needed someone to show them and to model it for them. All of us can learn from the examples of others. All of us can serve as an example for others too.
My friend, the wife of a seminary professor, continues to mentor young women. She invites them over for tea and spends time with them. In the process, they learn from a more mature, godly woman, and they see how she lives.
It’s not a bad model for making disciples. As we live with others, we have the privilege of extending relationship to them, and inviting them to learn some of the skills they need that we’ve learned from others. And then we pray that they in turn will one day offer both relationship and these skills to others. All of us have a role to play in relating to and learning from others ahead of us, and then offering relationship and our example to others.